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Chicago's most essential pasta destination is Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio

Former Spiaggia chef Sarah Grueneberg hits her peak—and proves there’s still room for Italian in town.



There's an elevated floor behind the bar at Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio, the new pasta-forward restaurant from former Spiaggia executive chef Sarah Grueneberg, that looks bigger than the restaurant's actual kitchen. While it plays host to a remarkable piece of stagecraft, it's also integral to the food being served there.

Before showing up on Top Chef—where she cooked circles around most other contestants, finished second, and rightly or wrongly came to be seen as something of a heavy—Grueneberg maintained a fairly low profile, executing the traditionalist vision of Spiaggia capo Tony Mantuano. That restaurant was and remains a temple to house-made pasta, rolling it out long before this never-ending season of Italophilia, when every other week sees the opening of a new supertrattoria trying to convince us there's an army of nonnas locked in the basement twisting tortellini and thumbing orecchiette.

At Monteverde, something like that's pretty much on full display. That floor behind the bar showcases Grueneberg's pasta makers hard at it, a helpful overhead mirror allowing diners to see their handiwork. Sometimes the pasta, in eight varieties—not including daily specials—is made to order. Other dried shapes are sold in bags at the front door. Everywhere you turn, pasta's in your face.

Particularly the ragu alla Napoletana, a groaning platter of food that seems to get hauled across the bustling dining room every 15 minutes. Meant to be shared by the table, it's a heaping mound of red-sauced fusilli from which a massive braised pork shank rises like Vesuvius, flanked by fat sausages and meatballs. Grueneberg classifies her other pastas into two categories: tipica, meaning traditional Italian preparations, and atipica, referring to the restaurant's departures from tradition. The latter group included orecchiette that's fried in a wok and tossed in spicy tomato-based arrabbiata sauce; it truly takes on the proverbial wok hay ("breath of the wok") smokiness associated with Chinese food (orecchiette has since been switched out for squidlike calamaretti). "Cannelloni saltimbocca" features roulades of ground lamb and manchego cheese, prosciutto, and sage resembling German fleischnacka, garnished with bits of romesco cauliflower and fried sage. The cannelloni are seared off and plated flat, giving this already weird-looking dish an even stranger appearance. The individual elements taste delicious, but the treatment dries out the pasta—a rare misstep among these noodles.

Grueneberg's more traditional pastas include a wonderfully snappy pappardelle tossed in a duck ragu surprisingly busy with olives and parsnips. The star of the classic tortellini en brodo, meanwhile, is the brodo itself, in which bob mortadella-stuffed nuggets. The spell of this powerfully rich brew is broken only when a server adds the bevr'in vin, a traditional shot of gently fizzy Lambrusco—illustrating the emphasis on correct preparation and precise service at Monteverde. Most noodles are cooked perfectly al dente; every plate arrives piping hot.

The menu's also home to a number of notable nonpasta dishes, mostly in the guise of small plates and snacks. A pyramid of crispy arancini filled with molten-red nduja rests on a cool bed of tuna-caper sauce. Grilled octopus spiedini share a skewer with leeks and purple Japanese sweet potato and come served with a sweet pepper dipping sauce. A spreadable prosciutto "butter" glistens over toasted bread, its richness cut by thinly sliced radishes. Tender breaded chicken livers, bathing in an intensely glutamic tomato sauce, served over polenta and garnished with sweet, snappy lima beans, bear a clever resemble to braciole—they could be, as a tablemate put it, "an homage to Ricobene's breaded steak sandwich."

Dessert options include Black Forest cake and a honey ice cream sundae; the caramel sauce drizzled over it conceals slices of banana and crumbled praline. But nothing tops a salted-butterscotch budino, a deep well of custard underneath a solid shattering shell top, a facsimile of Ben & Jerry's-style Heath bar chunks, and thick whipped cream that approaches the viscosity of butter.

Italian wines dominate, naturally, though you'll find bottles from all over, many in the $40-$50 range. A handful of impressive cocktails includes a bourbon soda spiked with the balsamic vinegar-like saba, made from cooked grape must, and a rye manhattan whose edges are softened by sweet amaro.

In these bloated times, nobody but restaurateurs seem to think we need more Italian spots. Now that Monteverde has proven to be the city's most essential pasta destination, maybe they'll come around to the idea. v

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